Competing schools or competing families? The segregative effects of neighborhood racial change and a school lottery in Washington DC

This guest post is written by Bryan Mann, a faculty member in the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department at the University of Kansas. Bryan uses geographic methods and spatial theories to understand educational policies and their effects. You can view his research team’s website at

The summary below offers a contrast to a recent SD Notebook post on “happiness-oriented parenting”- that research looked at parental choice in NYC and nearby suburbs, finding that at least a small cohort of racially diverse parents prioritize joy over academic competition. The research summarized below looks at parental choice in rapidly gentrifying Washington, DC and, instead, more evidence for the ways that the logic of competition leads to segregation.

I remember waiting for a bus in the rain on my last day of data collection in Washington, DC, in February 2020. I was in the city working on a project studying school choice, neighborhood racial change, and racial segregation, and I had just finished an interview with an upper-middle-class family in an affluent area of the city. 

I waited about 45 minutes for the delayed bus as I trekked back to my temporary home in the gentrifying part of town. I was frustrated because the bus was not coming, and I was getting wet. It was not lost on me that this daily journey would not be feasible for low-income families to get their kids to school. I stood there, waiting, thinking about one of the final statements my interviewee said.

“They made this choice system to help low-income people, but I think it ends up just helping people like us. It doesn’t seem like it is doing what it was supposed to do,” he said.

As is often the case in qualitative research, the words of participants best capture the study’s conclusions. This quote captures a core theme of the findings from this project: As neoliberalism pervades all aspects of our society, from housing to schools, it causes competition everywhere and between everyone. In the competition for spots in desirable schools, advantaged families win.

Economists predicted school competition would be a mechanism that would improve organizations because organizations improve when they compete. The economists undersold in market-based reform policies that competition also happens between families. Competition between families occurs because they view schools as the sole mechanism for economic security. This understanding leaves many parents feeling their children’s position in the social and economic hierarchy is delicate and causes them to calculate that pursuits of equality are not worth individual risks. 

School design could buffer the competitive pressures found across areas of US society. However, rather than buffering the effects of competition in other sectors of society, market-based reform hypercharges competition between families for limited spots in desirable schools. In Washington, DC, our research shows that the prevailing logics of competition prompts even the most socially just-minded families to participate in behaviors that inevitably lead to inequality and segregation.

These enrollment patterns are unfortunate because there are many good reasons to focus on promoting integrated and diverse schools. Integrated schools are an asset for a multiracial democracy because they can promote social cohesion if they are smartly designed. This cohesiveness is more critical now than ever in our fragmented social and political order. As Thurgood Marshall said in his dissent to the Milliken court decision, which struck down one remedy for segregation, “unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together.” Integrated schools also promote academic growth for white students and students of color. Segregated schools lead to fewer opportunities for students of color.

Washington, DC, is an intriguing case of the intersection between competition, neighborhood population, and school choice. Its demographics are changing. Its school policy is a lottery system in which residents can enroll in charter or traditional public schools outside their neighborhoods. 

We studied Washington DC to learn if, in a gentrified, choice ecosystem, children were beginning to learn together and why or why not. Hypothetically, there is more opportunity for integration there than seen in decades because patterns of white flight reversed, and the racial composition of residents in the district is different now than in a generation. Scholars note that white migration back into the urban core of DC, or gentrification, could lead to school diversification.

Our research team found that integration is not currently an effect of gentrification and choice. In theory, choice opened options for children across the city, but children across the city did not pursue these options the same way. The results of choice were continued segregation with only a few diverse schools sprinkled into the mix. These diverse schools came at the cost of worsening economic segregation in other neighborhoods.

We have now published two studies about Washington, DC. The first is a quantitative piece that shows that segregation persists during a period of demographic diversification of the residential population and a policy period of school choice. The second is a qualitative study that focuses on white parents to learn why, and it shows that the logics of the gentrified choice ecosystem led to continued segregation and is likely to remain unchanged with policy tweaks like weighted lotteries. As detailed in this summary of the qualitative piece, if parents paid attention to school racial composition at all, it was to avoid the schools that served students of color. Some parents even gamed the so-called “ungameable” lottery in order secure seats at more prestigious schools.

The logics embedded within the choice ecosystem and in other areas of society, such as housing, push white residents to continue segregating schools. There may be a few diverse schools in some places, but segregation will continue, especially for residents in the most economically disadvantaged part of town.

As I stood in the rain, I considered the possibility that perhaps the inaccessibility of this area of the city was by design. I considered that students here and their perceived prestigious schools would remain inaccessible, despite the promises that choice would open these schools to others. The spatial design of the city segregated the low-income children from the wealthy children here. The policy design of choice excludes low-income Black children from wealthier students elsewhere. 

Our research shows gentrification plus school choice is not a fast track to equality. While it is true that there are more white children in the educational system in Washington, DC than there were 20 years ago, there is a low ceiling for the possibilities of integration within a choice ecosystem. True integration will only happen if policymakers re-envision policies incentivizing students to learn together in the same schools. This re-envisioning is urgent because, considering our society’s massive social and political divisions, we need more than ever for our children to learn to live together.

As I stood in the rain that day, I knew we had a lot more work to do to make the dreams of togetherness in schools a reality. I knew that if policies made families compete, school divisions would worsen.

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